10 performances that did it for me in 2016

img_6062Looking back I can see repetition as a way of wearing away at something. I can see plurality and contradiction prioritised over singularity and neatness. Complexity over simplification. Space held for mystery. Dog whistles. Strangeness. I can see people being vulnerable. It doesn’t surprise me that this is what I was reaching for in 2016, which was terrible and destabilising for lots of reasons. And I think with this list I’m saying something back to myself about what I value going forward.

Listed in the order I saw them.

Annie Dorsen
Yesterday Tomorrow
La MaMa, New York City as part of PS122’s Coil Festival
13 January

Yesterday Tomorrow is one of those pieces that’s laid out for you at the beginning: three performers start by singing Yesterday by The Beatles and end singing Tomorrow from the musical Annie. How they gradually get from one to the other is newly determined in each performance by algorithmic progressions. The piece is basically doing one singular thing, but that thing, for me, held so much. It’s one of the performances that has stuck with me throughout the entire year because it speaks to the confusion and sometimes ridiculous humour of the present, a sense of reaching towards the future, desperate hope, boredom and monotony, the ground shifting under our feet when we know where we want to get to but can’t see the path.

Forced Entertainment/Terry O’Connor
Table Top Shakespeare: Hamlet
Barbican, London
5 March

I love all the members of Forced Entertainment, but I’ll be honest with you. Terry O’Connor is my favourite. I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I’m co-president of a Terry O’Connor fan club. I watched Terry perform Hamlet from their Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Lightly offhand and unfathomably devastating, funny and cutting, slight and forceful. She made me tear up over a bottle of balsamic vinegar.

Bat for Lashes
The Bride
First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, Los Angeles
20 April

I saw Natasha Khan as Bat for Lashes as The Bride perform her newest story-driven album in a grand church in Hollywood. It was weird. I feel excited when people perform as someone performing as someone else without doing any acting. Khan performs under the name/umbrella Bat for Lashes and says that these songs are from the point of view of The Bride. The rest takes place in our imaginations. Her storytelling was understated but rigorous, carrying us on undercurrents and waves rather than points on a map. It was utterly heartbreaking.

Ira Brand
Break Yourself
Marlborough Theatre, Brighton
14 May

On performances of plural and conflicting identities: Ira Brand as Ollie as Bruce Springsteen. I remember the expert lip syncing, I remember not quite knowing who was who and when or who was speaking at certain moments–Ira, Ollie or Bruce? I remember a very awkward live Q&A section with Ollie. I remember at least two passages detailing accounts of potent, aggressive and I think quite hot sexual encounters. It was slippery.

Milo Rau
5 Easy Pieces
Théâtre Varia, Brussels as part of Kunstenfestivaldesarts
22 May

Kids dressing up and playing the roles of other people–mostly adults–surrounding a well known child murder case in Belgium. The young people, aged 8-13, played the parents of victims, a police officer, a victim and the murderer himself. It was a tricky one that flirted so closely with crossing lines. I heard a lot of ‘this is problematic’ or ‘why do we need to see this’ comments. I came away feeling that the work was respectful of children and young people in a way I don’t feel like I see often when adults create new work with kids. The introductory piece of writing about the performances says “the production considers the limits of what children know, feel, and are allowed to do”, and I felt that. It also combines some of my strongest interests: serial murder and reenactments.

Rachael Young and Dwayne Antony
Steakhouse Live, Live Art Tent, Latitude Festival, Suffolk
14 July

I saw a shortened version of this piece at Latitude this year late at night in a stuffy tent with a can of cider in my hand crowded with people sitting on dirty uneven ground. I found it moody and focussed, exposed and exposing. You can see it in February at The Yard’s NOW 17 Festival and I would recommend that you do.

Nic Green with Laura Bradshaw and Rosana Cade
Cock and Bull
Forest Fringe, Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Edinburgh
12 August

I don’t know what to say about this other than it’s so beautifully made and performed and the use of repetition is truly special and all I keep thinking about is when they’re hugging at the end and they keep saying “good luck, everyone” and I think we need it.


photo by Jemima Yong

Ragnar Kjartansson
A Lot of Sorrow
Barbican Gallery, London
21 August

A 6 hour durational piece in which The National plays their song Sorrow over and over. I saw some video of the live event and it was unsurprisingly right up my street. A pop culture artifact, repetition, boredom, exhaustion. All pushing through to something. More honest human-ness, maybe. The persistent creeping of sadness disguised as fun. Or glimpses of connection.

Christopher Brett Bailey with George Percy and Alicia Jane Turner
Chapter, Cardiff
2 November

The way I experienced this piece has all to do with two things:
1 – The difficult personal circumstances set out by Chris in a bit of writing we read before the show that framed his impulses in making it. It framed the piece for me as a sort of howl.
2 – My own personal circumstances that meant I needed a space to experience a howl at that time. This is one of the few performances I’ve seen that really lived up to what was promised when they gave us earplugs on the way in. It was loud.

Kate McKinnon
Saturday Night Live
12 November

This live TV performance by Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah took place days after Cohen’s death and the US election. It was weirder than anything that’s normally allowed on American TV. A friend commented on Facebook that it felt like something from a live art cabaret night, and for me the earnestness makes it feel all the more radical. It caught me by surprise the first time I watched it. I thought it would be too cheesy and maybe a little bit cheap, but I was sobbing by the second verse. Hallelujah is surely one of the most overdone songs of all time, but I listened this time like it was new, hearing lyrics I hadn’t heard before, which I had to look up to see if SNL had changed them because they fit the context so perfectly.

This performance captured a grief and a sadness that was especially powerful coming from a queer woman, and as this great article by Catherine Baker points out, it speaks to sense of looking at the hard fought incremental progress for basic rights made by so many people in recent years and a terrible fear in wondering if that was the best it will ever be. But the performance is also conspiratorial. Like the best live art, there are so many layers and different ways to approach this seemingly simple act that if you’re not coming at it in a certain way there are things you will miss. As Baker writes in the previously linked article, there are winks, dog whistles, secret chords. At the end Kate/Hillary says ‘I’m not giving up and neither should you.’

Bonus standalone moments:

Dickie Beau
Dickie Beau: Unplugged
The North Door as part of Fusebox Festival, Austin
9 April

It’s not in this clip below, but that part where he lip syncs to the tape of the woman recording a message to her lover OOOOMMMMGGGGGG 😱🍆🍆🍆

Gob Squad

War and Peace
Campo, Ghent
1 December

There’s this part when they’re doing a sort of fashion show catwalk as all the characters from the novel and then they start introducing each other as figures from history and it’s all funny and playful and then they introduce each other as their own grandfathers and that got me.

David S Pumpkins

This was on live TV

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